Building boats. Building confidence.

Urban Boatbuilders

     Nestled in a roomy, well-equipped shop tucked in a row of warehouses, experienced woodworkers move among teens lacing up the ribs of a canoe or smoothing out the blades of long, wooden paddles. Over the whir of power sanders, you could hear patient instruction being offered when a particular boat-building problem cropped up.

Urban Boatbuilders

        Urban Boatbuilders, now in it's 20th year, was founded to engage Twin Cities kids by teaching them the hands-on skills and craftsmanship that goes into designing and building different water-faring vessels. Throughout the six-month apprenticeship, students learn to build canoes, paddles, kayaks and prams while also developing a sense pride and an appreciation of craftsmanship. 

Urban Boatbuilders

    Later this summer, the students and their canoes will travel from the St. Paul warehouse to northern Minnesota's Boundary Waters Canoe Area. For many of the students, it will be the first time they have been in a boat or even out on the water. The annual trip is the final step in Urban Boatbuilders' aim to give students the chance to be leaders, to have a life-changing experiences, to gain skills for the future. "After all their hard work, it is the perfect opportunity for us to celebrate and embrace the talent, ingenuity and potential they possess," says executive director Marc Hosmer. And it sounds like it will be fun.

Into the field

Schools often ask their freshman class to participate in service projects. One especially fun project is the squash harvest conducted by Valley City State University in North Dakota as part of its “Learning to Live/Living to Learn” course.

With the sun rising, the 200 students boarded school busses to head for fields planted by retired Lutheran pastor Dan Faust. With megaphone in hand, Faust divides the students into groups and sends them off in all directions

Valley CIty State University

This year's harvest started under heavy fog and even heavier mosquitoes. Nonetheless, the students quickly spread into the fields and began yanking green squash from the vines. The veggies were then collected by the armload and dumped into waiting cardboard boxes. Speedier delivery was accomplished with forward passes delivered to waiting receivers. And of course, there was an occasional pause for the mandatory selfies.

Valley CIty State University
Valley CIty State University

Last year's harvest yielded more than 47,000 pounds of squash for the Great Plains Food Bank, part of Lutheran Social Services of North Dakota. The produce was distributed to soup kitchens and community pantries around the state. Judging by the bulging boxes of squash loaded into the waiting semi truck, this year's service project yielded even more.

Valley CIty State University
Valley CIty State University

It's a matter of perspective

I was recently taking photographs at Loyola University, New Orleans. Beautiful campus. Great students. Heat and humidity was off the charts.

        The first night, Roberta Kaskel, vice president of enrollment management, took us out for dinner. My Minnesota compatriots were John Stemper of the education marketing firm, The Lawlor Group, and freelance designer Steve Pikala.

    "We love food in New Orleans," Kaskel explained. "In the morning, we talk about where we're going to go for lunch. At lunch, we talk about where we're going for dinner."

    My kind of place! 

    Driving along St. Charles Avenue on the way to campus the next morning, we got to check out the humungous oak trees stretching across the road and the ornate homes tucked behind elaborate landscaping. Stemper, Pikala and I debated how the runners, dog walkers and mothers pushing baby strollers all avoided being struck by the street cars sharing the same boulevard space. The scenes were cast in early morning light and I was pumped to start shooting.

    Then, I stepped out of the air-conditioned car. By the time I made the short trek across campus to our first shoot, I was sweating through my shirt. I took out my camera to start taking photos and condensation formed on the lens. It was ungodly hot and it was still early in the morning!

    At noon, there was a "welcome back to school" rally in the middle of campus. There were cheerleaders and a pep band. Students were dancing on the mall. The sun was beating down.


    "How do you deal with this heat?" I asked a dancing student. 

      "Where are you from?" she asked in reply.

    "Minneapolis, Minnesota."

    "How do you deal with that cold?" she responded.

    It wasn't until I found a student from St. Paul and I had posed my question for the umpteenth time that it began to make sense. "Yeah, it may be a little warm now,"  he allowed,  "But it's a matter of perspective. Come back from Minnesota in December and talk to me then."

    I paused in the shade of one of those big oak trees and thought about it. There are days during Minnesota Decembers when you can't pile on enough warm clothes. In full disclosure you should add January, February and maybe even March to that list. And how many times have I had to deal with the cold air fogging up a warm lens? I bet frost bitten fingers aren't much of a concern for Louisiana photographers. 

    It's a matter of perspective.

Summer musings

I often wonder why more schools don't schedule photo shoots during the summer.

Most colleges prefer shoots in the spring and fall, when campuses are blooming with spring flowers or bright with autumn leaves. But unlike the dicey spring and fall weather patterns, summer tends to be predictably good. With vegetation in full bloom and golden sunlight, campuses look beautiful. Students taking summer courses are tan (even in Minnesota!) and far more relaxed than any other time of the school year. And even if a school doesn't offer summer classes, there are students working for the summer manning the admissions office and maintenance crews (allowing them to be even more tanned and relaxed). Pull some of those students together and you have the makings of a very productive shoot.

I guess the most often heard argument against a summer campus shoot is from schools that don't conduct summer classes. Without the traditional body of students, the fear is not having enough of a variety in the appearance of students. Granted, the summer school population is smaller. However, with a change of clothes and some creative arrangement, few people viewing the final photos are never the wiser.

I just finished a July shoot at Northern State University in Aberdeen, SD. The school's director of university relations and marketing, Greg Smith, comes from a background of private sector public relations and advertising. Perhaps that is why he considered conducting a shoot when the appearance of the campus was at its peak. We worked with basically the same core of students over two days and it was fun. An added advantage to working with many of the same students is after shooting the first two or three situations, they understand what is needed. No need to instruct them to walk closer together, use hand gestures, don't look at the camera. They get it. The shoot then becomes more productive with even more scenes captured.

Northern State University

There's speculation among college administrators that as a matter of cost savings, schools may be forced to go to year-round schedules. Makes sense. Why have those expensive and well-equipped facilities be under used for part of the year? Summer campus photography would then become part of the norm. I just wish admission offices would get ahead of that curve and consider summer shoots now.

All-Star Game

I was planning to watch the 2014 All-Star Game from the comfort of my couch. Not baseball's biggest fan, it nonetheless would be cool to watch Derek Jeter make his 14th appearance in the mid-summer classic. Throughout his long career with the Yankees, Jeter could always be depended upon to play superb ball without calling attention to himself. Jeter got the job done and let his skill speak for itself. Having the chance to view his last game ever played right here in Minnesota was not to be missed.

My TV watching plans changed a bit the day before the game when I received a call from the Major Leagues Baseball office asking if I'd be interested in an assignment. It seemed the White House had just notified the MLB that Dr. Jill Biden would be attending in conjunction with the “Target Presents People All-Star's Teachers” campaign. MLB already had a photographer with the All-Star Teachers, but a second shooter was now needed to make sure all the activities involving the Vice President's wife were covered. Sounded good to me.

The morning of the game I was given press credentials and a special badge letting the Secret Service know I had passed inspection. I then joined the 30 teachers who were riding two trolleys in the All-Star Game parade through downtown Minneapolis. The plan was for Dr. Biden to ride in the first trolley and then switch to the second mid-way to the stadium.

It was a beautiful day. I was in the second trolley and the teachers were having a wonderful time yelling and waving to the thousands lining the streets. The crowds responded in kind.

At mid-point, Dr. Biden switched to join the second trolley of cheering teachers. When we reached the stadium's entrance, an even larger crowd had gathered to watch baseball players making their red carpet entrance into the ball park. It was at this point that Dr. Biden and her staff climbed off the trolley. Figuring I better stick with them, I also hopped off. The trollies rolled away. Dr. Biden and her people then climbed into waiting Secret Service SUVs and drove off. I was left standing in the middle of the street.

I looked at the press credentials hanging from my neck and saw they allowed me access to the stadium, press box, field and interview room. I decided to see if they also got me onto the red carpet. I ducked under the velvet ropes and the closest security guy gave me a nod. Cool! The best players in baseball were striding up to the ball park's main gate and now so was I. As I slowed my stride to enjoy my 15 seconds of imaginary fame, I glanced to my right and there was the legendary Mr. Jeter also slowly making his way along the carpet (his way being slowed by patiently signing autographs for fans). 

A lot of the players were entering the stadium with little more than a nod or wave to the crowd. Here was "The Captain" demonstrating yet another attribute which has made him a favorite. I decided that was worth a picture.

Dr. Jill Biden, 2014 MLB All Star Games

Smiling behind the camera

I recently had the pleasure of shooting a few assignments for "Dentistry", the alumni magazine of the University of Minnesota's School of Dentistry . Claudia Kanter is the editor and one of my favorite Twin Cities designers, Steve Pikala, pulls it all together.

fall 2013-1.jpg

Working with a new editor can be a little stressful. We creatives all have definite ideas on what makes a good photo. But there was no stress working with Claudia. She clearly explained what she needed in the photos and then let me go at it.  A couple of the assignments involved profiles of alumnae. Another was shooting "Give Kids a Smile Day," an event where students, staff and faculty  provide free dental care to children who otherwise would not have access to dental services. My favorite assignment however, was photographing the school's dean, Dr. Leon Assael, as he walked the floors of the dentistry school to visit with students.

Dr. Assael was clearly elated to get away from the administrative details of his office for a bit of the afternoon. And it was fun to see the surprise on students' faces as the dean dropped in to see how they were doing. Throw in the ease of shooting low light situations with a digital body and it made for a delightful afternoon.

spring 2014.jpg

Working at Quincy University

The second campus shoot of my spring season was a four-day event at Quincy University, a Catholic Franciscan school in Illinois. The rising cost of education has put added emphasis for schools to highlight career preparation. A good portion of this shoot was spent highlighting QU internships. Working with Heidi Meyer, the school's director of communications, we spent time off campus with students testing the waters of public relations, community development, television broadcasting and nursing.

One of my favorite things about QU is the opportunity to work with the Franciscan friats working at the school. They all seem to possess a great sense of humor and the students really enjoy the opportunity to spend time with them. The beautiful campus chapel makes for a perfect location for this to happen.

Test tubes, beakers and the paraphanalia of a lab always lend themselves to interesting science department photos. QU is currently undergoing renovation of the science department facilities.


The last day of the shoot was devoted to photos needed by the athletic department.  Heidi wanted dramatically lit athletes against a dark background on which print could be added later. To avoid the cost and expense of traveling with additional lightening gear, backdrop stands and seamless paper, I decided to get the look with just the one power pack and two strobes I usually travel with. The trick would be to find a space to shoot in that would be big enough to allow the light of my strobes to fall off and let the background go dark. inspecting various possibilities as we crossed campus during the first three days, we decided on a large conference room on the first floor of the Health and Fitness Center. What could be more convenient than being up just one flight of stairs from the locker rooms?! With the students getting their "game face" on, we spent a full day shooting tennis, volleyball, basketball, cross-country, soccer, softball, baseball, football and golf. 

Quincy University

Spring campus shoots

Spring is always a busy time of the year with lots of college shoots. One of the first of this season was at the University of Evansville. I've worked there for years and it's always fun to go back--especially toward the end of the year when the weather warms up, spring sports are in high gear and students are cramming to get final projects completed. 

UE’s director of publications, Susan Heathcott, is a pro at pulling together all the details that go into making a successful shoot. Classroom locations, who the instructor is, what students will be doing, how long we have to shoot—it’s all scheduled on her clipboard. With my lighting gear strapped on the back of an official admissions office golf cart and a grande skinny latte sitting in the cup holder, we criss-cross the Indiana campus photographing science labs, art classes and students studying in the sun. 

With an especially strong engineering department, UE has a lot of entries in national end-of-the-year competitions. Concrete canoes and steel bridges, fire-fighting robots and tennis ball launchers, moonbuggies and vehicles designed to squeeze the most miles out of a cup of gas—all the stuff that makes interesting photos.

There are many things that make campus shoots enjoyable, but to see a student’s determination to make his or her project the best it can be is right at the top of the list. Whether working in a group and debating how to best tune a vehicle’s suspension or working alone late in the afternoon to fabricate an aerodynamic windshield, their enthusiasm is simply inspiring.